Before Navratilova and Connors brought this Wimbledon to its proper crescendo, the tournament first had to be rescued from the elements and ennui by an unlikely savior, 38 in years, 33-1 in odds, the one, the only, Billie Jean King. Dismissed as "the Old Lady" many years and knee operations ago, King ultimately converted enough key third-down situations to progress to the semifinals, the most aged female to get that far at Wimbledon in 62 years.
The difficulties that King had to help the tournament overcome were varied and many. The weather, even by London standards, was abysmal. A wildcat Underground strike, followed by a National Railroad strike, isolated Wimbledon out in the suburbs until Wednesday of the second week. Besides, the World Cup was on the telly most every night.
Last year King was at Wimbledon as a television commentator. The publicity over her affair with her former secretary, Marilyn Barnett, had staggered her and left her timid and leery of the public. She spoke of her tennis career strictly in the past tense and speculated on what 1982 might bring.
Then, in December, the suit that Barnett had filed against King and her husband, Larry, over ownership of a beach house came to trial. The judge decided in favor of the Kings, but the victory was hollow for Billie Jean. Her reputation had been damaged, and she had lost perhaps $1.5 million in off-court income. She retreated to a secluded house she and Larry own on Kauai in Hawaii. There she finally found a haven from the maelstrom that had been swirling around her for so long. But the refuge wasn't Kauai itself. The refuge was a tennis court on the island. "That was the one place Billie Jean could escape to," says liana Kloss, her doubles partner.
Soon King risked going back on the tour. It wasn't easy. There were first-and second-round defeats. In Detroit, she fled the court: default. There were occasions when she was petty or picayune—bitchy. "Please understand," she said at Wimbledon. "It's been a very hard year for me. I think I'm all right now, but every day I still hold my breath." Then there was Wimbledon. All along, Wimbledon was the goal: "the Old Lady's house," the grass, the instincts, the memories. Her opening match would make her the first player ever to play 100 singles matches at The Championships. By the Fortnight's end she had appeared in a total of 250 in singles and doubles.
King escaped from triple match point against Tanya Harford in the third round, whipped Turnbull, the sixth seed, in the fourth round, and, in the quarters, came from a set down to beat Tracy Austin, 19, the No. 3 player in the world. King threw junk down the middle at Austin, belted serves into the corners, cut volleys and won the big points en route to a 3-6, 6-4, 6-2 victory. The next morning, when she lugged her aching bones out of bed after 10 hours' sleep, her picture was on the front pages of The Times, in New York and London alike.
And what delicious irony this was, for there was King on the front page for all the world to see, wearing a "free" dress. After all the bad publicity, King had surely become the only name player in the world without a clothing contract. One major manufacturer did approach her, but with an insulting offer, figuring she would wear the company's outfits for almost nothing. She told the clothier to take a hike and kept on wearing the old dresses that her friend, Ted Tinling, had designed for her sometime ago. At Wimbledon she donned the same dress every day—complete with ruffled panties.
At last, in the semis, King came a cropper against Evert Lloyd 7-6, 2-6, 6-3, but it was a meeting of lovely high quality marred only by—what else?—a storm. This one came, cruelly, ludicrously, at 5-2 40-all in the third set, right after Evert Lloyd had hit a backhand service return wide on her first match point. Forty-one minutes and four match points later, Evert Lloyd closed out King with a lob on the baseline. Afterward, coolly, rationally, King explained how it had all faded: short approaches, a couple of missed overheads, going to the well with drop shots a few times too often.
That evening, though, relaxing in her hotel room with Larry, who had flown over that day to surprise her, she seemed fiery and nettled. "I wasn't honest with the press today," she said. "I didn't tell them how I really felt. I'm dying inside; I should have won. I could have. And that's why I still go on." Anyway, she said, she had learned how, at age 38, to play again. Now she must learn how to win a tournament again.
That was a lesson both Navratilova and Connors would soon show they already had mastered.